Matchbooks & Playing With Matches

Before the butane lighter took over, matchbooks were everywhere.  Before the Internet, raw deals were advertised on matchbooks.

Growing up in the 1960's, matches were everywhere.  Few people had or used lighters. And the few lighters we had were pretty primitive.   The "Zippo" lighter was the standard, and it burned some sort of kerosene or something.  It always seemed to be out of fuel or needing a new flint.   Mother had a set of sterling silver lighters, set out for "company" along with a crystal ashtray - because everyone smoked and everyone smoked at dinner, while they were eating.  Looking back, it was a different world.  At any one time, half the population was carrying around little hand-held fires.

What do we do today that will seem just as ridiculous 30-50 years from now?  Somehow I think it will involve smart phones and social media.  Just a wild guess.

Butane lighters were years away.  I recall buying my Mother a "Colibri" lighter for Christmas one year in the 1970's.  She still used matches.  Old habits died hard.  About the same time, the "BIC" disposable lighter came into being - popular among smokers and stoners alike.

But when I was a kid, it was matches - paper matches - and you struck the match on the front of the book, not the back.  It was a big deal when they moved the striking surface to the back face of the matchbook for "Safety" reasons.

And the reasons were..... kids.  We were always admonished not to "play with matches" and every so often, there would be a fire blamed on "kids playing with matches" or something.  A neighbor kid set fire to the field behind our house in Illinois, and they blamed it on "playing with matches" but the real reason was, he was a firebug.  Sans matches, he would have found some other ignition source.

Of course, being kids, we immediately decided to play with matches, only because we were told not to.  Back then, a child could buy primitive fireworks, such as sparklers, at the five and dime store.  I recall particularly they had something called "sidewalk snakes" which was a brown pill-shaped thing, about the size of a nickle, but thicker.  You lit it, and it would expand as it burned, making a "snake" on the sidewalk.

And of course, there were other, illicit things, such as "black cat" firecrackers, which the older kids would sell us.  Always, there were stories about some kid blowing his hand off with one - which probably happened, but with an M-80 or something.   Those were simpler times.

One way we "played with matches" was to light the whole pack which was easy to do before they moved the strike plate to the back side of the match book.  You could just lean over a match and strike it on the plate and the whole thing would make a nice flame, to the amusement of six-year-olds.

Matches were everywhere.  You went to a restaurant or bar, and they had matches with the restaurant or bar logo and phone number on them - sitting by the ashtray on your table, or in a fishbowl by the front door.  They were common as dirt - the original giveaway swag, sort of like a business card that catches fire.  They were everywhere and today they are nowhere.  If you can even find a pack or book of matches, good for you.  Mostly today, if you find matches, they are the wooden "kitchen match" type and sold as a novelty.  Books of paper matches?  All but gone.

And it was quite an industry.  Every country had its "match king" who made his fortune selling matches.  All that is gone, now, too.

One of the weirdest things was advertising on matches.  Long before there were disturbing ads on Facebook exhorting Moms to go back to school or advertising refinance rates, there were weird ads on matchbook covers.  I guess the advertiser paid for the matches, and some restaurants and bars gave them away for free.

"Get a Man's Job!" the back of the matchbook says.  That sounds vaguely dirty to me.

Often, they advertised sketchy  schools; truck driving school, for example - "Learn to drive the big rigs!" and matchbook school became sort of a shorthand for what today we call, for-profit colleges.  Another promised a "scholarship" to art school, if you could draw a cartoon figure. We all scoffed at these, knowing they were a ripoff.  Today, similar pitches are made, but not on matchbooks, but on the Internet instead.

Today, this would be an ad on the internet.

So scams and cons and conspiracy theories and crapola has always been with us, it seems.  In addition to matchbook covers were the "classified ads" in the back of most magazines - many of them for scams.  Even today, Smithsonian Magazine offers ads for sketchy gold coin dealers.  Not much has changed, it seems.

The Internet is different in that it is harder to discern truth from lies, good deals from bad, or facts from conspiracy theories.  We scoffed at anything advertised on a matchbook cover and would look down upon someone who fell for one of these matchbook cons.  The very medium told us what level of trust we should have for the content.

Today, much less so.  A "legitimate" news site (and I use that term loosely) is often crammed with pop-ups, pop-unders, banner ads, and other scams, such as "sponsored content" posing as articles.  And scam sites can look legit, because coding HTML is a lot cheaper than setting up a four-color printing press.  The New York Times looks as good as Infowars - in terms of fonts and typeset and photos and such.  You can no longer discern quality of data by the medium.  The medium is no longer the message.

I dunno what got me thinking about this, only that the last time I owned a book of matches was when I bought a box of them at a garage sale, advertising a steak-and-seafood house in Ithaca, New York, that is no longer in business.  We hardly used them,  and passed them on to some other person at another garage sale.  No one smokes anymore, and if they did, they have a BIC lighter.  No one uses matches for anything, it seems.

Close cover before striking!

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